Green spaces do not create any direct revenue, but the public expects them to be well maintained at all times ' even during a downturn. Tony Richards investigates how the horticultural departments within local authorities are coping with fleet and plant management under the increased monetary pressures.

Fleet managers have been seeking “best value” for decades, but just three years ago the economy took a body blow and local authorities, which are dependent on public money, were always going to be in the firing line.

Today the Government is demanding massive savings across the public purse, and those responsible for parks and open spaces are unable to hide or escape.

Parks do not, as yet, create direct revenue (apart from staging events and charging visitors for parking) but at the same time the land cannot be left unattended. Grass and trees will grow, hedges need cutting back and the natural flora and fauna must be protected. The big question is how can park services be maintained when budgets are cut?

The answer, it seems, is to “share the pain”. Where, for example, grass cutting frequencies are reduced over the year, machinery must be better able to handle longer grass; and managers want their existing vehicles to work for longer, more reliably and with much higher productivity.

In 2008 the collapse of banks was highlighted by the disastrous Icelandic Bank episode, leaving several councils facing multi-million pound losses, but for the following months life carried on as normal with contracts being met, leasing agreements renewed and investment planned and agreed. The large black cloud that was fast approaching has now closed in and parks managers are being told that they really do not have the funds for new machinery and vehicles. There is, however, another side to this gloomy coin: when local authorities react by being smarter, more innovative, and forward thinking, then equipment manufacturers also have to step up to the mark. Customers and suppliers have to work alongside each other ' as the Government has said several times: “we are all in this together”.

John Pell, Horticultural Service Manager at Nottingham City Council, one of the hardest hit authorities in the country, is calling on equipment manufacturers to do more to help customers and themselves.

“I was intimately involved in this industry until the early 1990s, then spent a few years out of it until I came back in 2010, and I can see very little has changed. We must have more innovation from the manufacturers,” John says.

“In the 80s compact tractors entered the market and they proved very successful. Smaller diesel engines with the ability to power attachments hydraulically, carry people about and tow, are all important. But since then there have been few big changes.

“We operate a varied fleet of pick-ups and 60bHP to 80bHP tractors: the vans have crew cabs so we can get people around, and the tractors will tow and operate as forklifts. We have used 4x4 vehicles ' and still do ' but I sometimes question the value of 4x4s. The tractors fulfil our needs for off-road work. What we really use is the vehicle's towing ability, payload and as 'people transport' for three to five staff. We may have more interest in electric vehicles in the future, but at the moment we have to think carefully about their route, because of limited mileage and power ability ' they have difficulty going uphill with a full load.

“There will be opportunities for investment for even the most cash-strapped authorities, but we will all be looking for products that offer a financial saving, as well as meeting our broad, all-year-round needs.”

Nottingham is a medium-sized city of some 350,000 inhabitants, but it is also a centre for business and tourism, so the actual numbers in the city rise and fall at different times of the day and year. More than 20% ' a full fifth ' of the city's geographical spread is parkland and open space, including the 500 acres of Wollaton Hall, where outdoor events are held throughout the summer. Most of the parks have areas of “wild meadows” where wildflowers are encouraged.

John Pell says that he is not a believer in rigidly setting a number of cuts per year, preferring a system of maintaining a height of grass for the actual location ' maybe 6” in some areas, but up to 3-4” on football pitches in summer when they are not in use. His department has replaced a large cylinder mower with a flail, but all three methods are employed ' cylinders, rotary and flail ' to suit particular locations and needs. “It's all a question of balance. Most of our urban parks have wild meadow areas and these are cut and baled in late summer ' a job we contract out to local, interested farmers. We will not let grass get too high anywhere as this encourages weeds like ragwort. Wollaton Park is home to several deer herds so there is no problem in removing grass cuttings ' they become fodder for the deer,” he adds.

Dan Smyth, Street Scene Manager at Test Valley Borough Council agrees that maintaining service with reduced budgets is a difficult task, but it is what the public and local taxpayers expect. “With its two main towns of Andover and Romsey, Test Valley in Hampshire is a tourist area that includes a spread of formal parks, open space, woodlands and several outdoor sports areas ' all of which are maintained to the standards expected by residents and visitors,” he says.

“The Council has a duty to maintain services to the public, so that means we have to think smarter about how to make savings without affecting front line services. Fuel for the vehicle fleet is a big expense, so we are evaluating how the vehicles are being used to see if we can make them more efficient and cut out unnecessary journeys.

“We have also been re-assessing leasing agreements for vehicles and equipment. Where a vehicle was leased by us for five years, we have been able to extend that to seven years without loss of productivity. Maintenance is important, but so is helping drivers and operators take more care of the vehicles and equipment they use. We have to change the working culture for some people and that means monitoring the way vehicles are treated, how they are driven and what state they are in when they have finished the shift. Most drivers treat their vehicles like they would their car ' but some others don't. That is where we have to introduce training and see if we can help them.

“The fleet includes grass cutting equipment including towed gang mowers and walk-behind mowers; two conventional tractors; small compact tractors; and a fleet of 3.5-tonne pick-ups and vans, each capable of towing heavy laden trailers. We will continue to seek out and assess new technologies with the aim of making better use of diminishing resources, but the yardsticks will be reliability, labour savings and longevity.

“We have also been considering staffing levels so that we can maintain frontline services and that has meant some changes. Towards the end of last year we were able to review six positions where the staff were not fully employed during the winter. Other savings come from doing things differently and getting more out of what we do have, not cutting service levels.

“One of the difficulties is that we have set very high standards in looking after our parks and parklands, and the public would notice very quickly if these standards slipped. The council is committed to the local environment and one of the aims of our corporate plan is to enhance and preserve our natural and built environment.”

Manufacturers and suppliers are at the sharp end when it comes to their customers' budget cuts and they too have had to think smarter to maintain relationships with local authorities and their contractors.

Joedy Ibbotson, Turf Division Sales Manager at John Deere, says: “It's no secret that local authorities' budgets are under pressure and they are looking to do whatever they can to reduce costs, but this does not mean buying cheaper products. What councils do buy will be products that will work harder and for longer.

“One effect of restricted budgets for parks and amenity areas is to reduce the frequency of grass cutting, say, for example, from 15 cuts a year to 10. That can have an effect on the equipment they use, as longer grass is tackled more efficiently by rotary mowers rather than cylinder mowers, so managers and groundsmen may be more likely to purchase rotary mowers or investigate the availability of rotary mowers that can be attached to the front of an existing chassis, such as a compact tractor.

What parks managers may want to investigate is how to get more versatility from a machine, to ensure it is used for as many weeks of the year as possible. It is this element of multi and all-year-round tasking that will mean compact tractors will continue to provide a versatility and reliable solution.

“Two harsh winters have also helped to concentrate managers' minds on year-round products. A compact tractor will carry any number of working attachments, including a rotary mower on the front in summer and then a snowplough in winter, in combination with a gritting unit on the back, and provide the power to operate them efficiently.

“Councils and private customers will be looking carefully at their investments and they will be seeking established manufacturers with a proven track record of product support backed up by local, approved and qualified dealers. We have introduced Powerguard, a maintenance and repair contract over the lifetime of the product ' perhaps for a full five years ' so that customers can fix operating costs, avoiding any hefty additional bills as the product ages. It may be that some local authorities will look for savings by switching to contractors, but this does not change the pressure on manufacturers such as John Deere to maximise the working life of the product and minimise its downtime in the workshop,” he said.

Price will always be a major factor, but customers are seasoned and knowledgeable professionals, and they know that a cheap product can offer cheap service ' a poor investment at a time when reliability and productivity must be maintained.

In 2008, when the financial crash actually happened, there was little immediate effect on local government, even though there was much talk of reduced budgets. Two years later the financial problems began to seep through and today all manufacturers will undoubtedly be affected, but it is still too early to be sure what this will mean. Perhaps by the summer of 2012 we will have a clearer view of the future?

Mark Harrison, Director, Ryetec International Machinery, agreed that operational programmes were changing to make cost savings. “We are noticing a change in the way that local authorities' parks departments are operating and this is highlighted by the number of grass cuts. They are changing from, for example, 15 or 16 times a year to 11 and this has a big impact on the type of machinery they need. A cylinder mower is great when it is dry and the grass is being cut frequently, but when it is wet and the grass is longer, cylinder mowers ' and even some rotary mowers ' struggle.” “Under these conditions our Triflex Gang Flail Mower is having marked success. The high speed flail rotor and consequently high flail tip speed will cut grass cleanly at any height, even when it is raining and up to the tractor's bonnet, and it spreads the cuttings evenly without leaving clumps of wet grass. We have also got grass collectors so the cuttings can be removed as soon as they have been flailed.

“We started to notice budget restrictions amongst local authorities in 2009, when sales of new machines began to fall away slightly, but the maintenance of parks and municipal golf clubs, as well as recreation grounds, has to continue, so we saw the trend move towards keeping machines for longer. But the local authorities found that it was costing them just as much in service and maintenance costs to keep an older machine working. We are now seeing investment in machinery that does the job more effectively, and that means that operators will be cutting costs in the longer term.

As one of the smaller, independent companies we feel we can offer personal service that listens to the customer and provides a solution. We are not bound by the need to sell what is in stock.”

Chris Tucker, Marketing Manager, at Bomford Turner, says that grass and hedges will carry on growing no matter what budget restrictions are put in place by local authorities and that means that environmental and grounds care service will have to continue. The answer, which local authorities seem to understand, is to buy machines that will give value and longevity ' and that is our philosophy as well.

“I was expecting the cut backs to be very tough and have a much more profound impact on our business than they have done. But it is not a service that can simply be stopped, and cut backs have tended to see reductions in the frequency of mowing and hedge cutting ' so that when they are eventually cut the grass is longer and hedges have grown, so better equipment is needed.

“As a manufacturer we have always striven to be ahead of the curve: it is an industry that demands innovation, whether that is created internally through our company knowledge over 108 years, or it is as a direct result of rulings and advice by the Health & Safety Executive and our customers. Local authorities and their contractors are very health conscious and require the machine to have every possible safeguard as well as the machinery operator being fully protected.

“Spending cut backs are very tough on local authorities and their contractors, but the job still has to be done: they cannot simply stop and let the grass and hedges grow ' that's not an option.

“Labour saving is one of the key areas of cost control and if we can use modern technology to produce machines that are safer and require fewer people, and are more effective, then we can play a role in helping customers save money.

“All parks equipment is mechanical and works in a fairly harsh environment, so they will always require service. We, as manufacturers from sheet metal at one end to rolling out the product at the other, have a responsibility to provide often bespoke parts quickly to avoid downtime. We have recently introduced a system where we can halve the time spent manufacturing a new part, and that means that the customer is back working very quickly.

“Designers and manufacturers have a duty to serve their customers and for the next few years at least this will involve working with them to reduce their costs,” he says.

Cut backs in local authority budgets are a blow to investment programmes and the progress of the service to ensure a more attractive, pleasurable and sustainable public environment, but there is a positive side. Fleet managers will look carefully at their vehicles and realise that buying cheap can be a very expensive option, says Mark Hopkins, Director of Sales, Mercedes-Benz Unimog UK.

“Parkland vehicles have a tough working life. They need to be very reliable; carry out a wide range of tasks; carry and power different implements all year round; and ensure the safety of the driver/operator ' which means controlling implements from within the cab. Then there are the other health and safety factors, such as producing the driver with a comfortable working environment for his full eight-hour shift.

“Finally there are the consumable costs: a low-powered diesel engine that is being flogged will cost a lot in fuel and maintenance; and the low mileage costs of the Mercedes-Benz Unimog, the best all terrain vehicle there is, mean short, medium and long term affordability on and off roads.

“We are in an age when there is no such thing as cheap labour. Our customers realise that using a multi-purpose, one-man operation vehicle will reduce the need for extra employees in situations where they are at risk ' for example arboriculture, where a cherry picker access platform is safer and more secure than tree-climbing or using ladders.

“We, as designers and manufacturers, need to be aware of the industry's wind of change. Customers have always demanded value for money: now they must receive more value for less money.”

Lee Whittaker of Multihog, said: “As the UK arm of the manufacturer Multihog we are aware that budgets are constrained, and the developers, engineers and sales team listen to feedback from the customer to continue to develop new attachments which widen even further the Multihog's scope. Brushwood chipping and stump grinding now complement the range of ground care and parkland possibilities.”

“Innovative and new equipment is out there in the marketplace and many councils/contractors with a can-do attitude are already taking advantage of this type of equipment. With this in mind manufacturers need to keep looking into new ways to improve utilisation of their products without sacrificing usability. For example every Multihog attachment that we promote is as good if not better than the product it is likely to replace in the field (or roadside).

“Powerful hydraulics with an option for load sensing valves enables the operator to alter the flow of power so that the Multihog can be used in harsh situations i.e. wood chipping, stump grinding and snow blowing or less arduous rotary mowing, sweeping and gritting at the turn of a dial.

“If intervals between mowing are longer, more powerful equipment is needed to complete the task. The combination of the performance of the Multihog base unit and attachments such as flail mower and hedge cutter can make light work of brush cutting and parkland maintenance.

“Focus on a comfortable operator environment in the design stage was an important factor to enable one driver to complete even long shifts without fatigue. The 360º visibility cab is fitted with an air suspension seat, heating and air conditioning and multi-functional joystick operation of controls.

“The Multihog will accept a number of attachments so in effect it can go out in the morning patch planing for the highways department and then be utilised in the afternoon for the parks department grass cutting or hedge trimming. This improves productivity through cross departmental utilisation.

“Robust build quality with parts and attachments sourced from proven manufacturers ensures that Multihog only uses equipment that is perfectly matched to the base unit. Paint work is a two stage process, in the first stage it is primed with zinc rich powder then a second powder coat is used which is then baked in an oven at 200 degrees. A sample piece of steel using this process was placed in a salt tester for 2000 hours and passed which is very important for the durability of the machines in winter maintenance operations.”

It is clear that both customers and suppliers are not just aware of the spector ' and reality ' of budget cuts, but that they are also working towards the same solution: products that do more, last longer, and cut costs. There will always be a need for machines to protect and nurture the environment as well as control it for public enjoyment, and designers are taking steps to reduce such costs as fuel usage and make more multi-purpose machines, or at least attachments that can tackle different vegetation.

For the future, and in the longer term, costs, coupled with health and safety concerns, are likely to see increased development of electric power and robotics, but there is a long way to go and until these technologies become more affordable and proven, then the industry will rely on the tried and trusted suppliers.